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Wayne Mills was like that warrior that refuses to come off of the mountain. With defeat eminent and inevitable, he would rather raise his fists in the air and rage against the dying of the light then let it overtake him sitting down or sulking. He was like that old honky tonk that refuses to sell as strip malls, condo complexes, and highrises get built up all around it; the one lone holdout swearing off the money that selling out would impart on the principle that everything real, everything worth cherishing is disappearing, and with it, the ties to who we are as people, and the culture that we come from.
In the culture war, Wayne was that painted up, passionate warrior that rallies the troops with his sword held high, stern faced and stubborn as the waves of change sweep over and ultimately destroy all of what once was; victims of progress and the cult of priority.I’ll be there when they burn the last honky tonk down In body, mind, and spirit, under the table, or under the ground The fading echos of a barroom band might be the only sound I’ll be there when they burn the last honky tonk down
These are the words that form the chorus of the title track, and the theme of Wayne’s 2010 album with The Wayne Mills Band called The Last Honky Tonk. Both thematically and sonically, the album and Wayne are like a big stick in the mud and a finger in the eye of the forces severing country’s roots, drawing heavy from the Waylon Jennings-inspired half beat and electric sound, then floating towards the Willie Nelson waltz and acoustic rhythms, and by the end of the album, touching on and paying homage to most of the country music textures that are seen today by Music Row’s money-driven perspective as outmoded.
The second song on the album,”One Of These Days,” is about losing friends too early, reminiscing back on their lives, and using it as a reflection on his own. “My friends lost their lives, but I remember their dreams,” is what Wayne says leading into the the first chorus that talks about the promises we rarely keep to ourselves.
The infectious hook and groove of “Same Old Blues” makes it one of the most fun tracks on the album, while “It’s Just Not My Style” speaks to the personality of Wayne to just do things his way, and lead by example. “Old Willie Nelson Song” and “Friendly Companion” pay homage to Wayne’s musical heroes, but not in the pandering, name-dropping manner of many modern day country songs, but in the context of a heartfelt story. Then “The Truce” duet with Presley Tucker draws inspiration from the famously tumultuous relationship between Tammy Wynette and George Jones.
“Don’t Bring It Around” speaks to the sobriety many Outlaws attempt to embrace later in life, that is regularly hindered by the insistence of the culture and people that surround them, while the epic “Homeward Bound” is about coming come, and coming to peace, putting a period on an album that when listening to in the midst of the recent news of Wayne’s passing feels hauntingly foreboding and poignant.
True country music artists always seem to hold on to life much more precariously than the rest of us, and that vulnerability, and the perspective afforded by walking that line between the dead and the living is what gives them the insight to speak about such things the rest of us struggle to put into words. Wayne Mills was not the most well-known, nor the most prolific of artists. But he was one of the most pure and honest of the breed, unwavering in his country music principles, evidenced by The Last Honky Tonk, and his music that will live on well beyond his passing.
1 3/4 of 2 guns up.
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To say that I had trepidation about this album heading into it is probably understated. I should have known better and just trusted the Cody Canada name and the weight that it carries, and had a little more faith that when he announced that he was putting out an acoustic live album with some covers and old songs and maybe a few new ones, that it wasn’t just going to be a stop gap like the shape some acoustic-only and live albums can take.
But it’s not like Cody Canada is on a big winning streak. Fellow songwriter and guitar player Seth James is leaving Cody’s current band The Departed at a time when the band seems to be struggling a little bit to get their feet under them, and you get the sense Canada is still trying to find his long-term place both sonically and logistically in the post Cross Canadian Ragweed world.
But this might also be one of the coolest things about Some Old, Some New, Maybe a Cover or Two—it feels like Canada taking a moment to reflect on his past, refocus on his roots, and ready himself for the future. This album is much more than just running through some old Ragweed material, a couple of Departed tunes, and a few of his favorite songs. There’s something unspoken between the tracks (in an album with a lot of speaking and stories) that makes you feel like you’re witnessing a catharsis of some kind, like Canada is working cobwebs out and exercising demons to set the table for where he’s going next. We very well may look back on this album as an important moment in the Cody Canada canon.
Acoustic and live albums naturally get relegated in an artists’ discography, fair or not, because it takes less effort to create them. But almost with that sense, Canada puts every effort into making each take on this album something special. At the same time, the ease and comfort level of this record is magnanimous and magnetic, like you’re sharing in the music with Canada instead of listening to a star on a stage.
Sometimes solo acoustic albums can feel a little thin and leave the ears wanting, but the sound on Some Old, Some New is full and crisp. One of my favorite moments in the album is being immersed in the low end Canada’s guitar emits during his cover of Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.” He leaves his lower strings open and ringing while working the melody with the upper ones, allowing deep resonant bass tones to engross the listener. For having such a loose theme, the song selection is pretty smart. Whether you’re a long-time Cody Canada fan, or someone looking for a good primer of his material as a place to start, Some Old, Some New is not a bad choice.
The stories and banter are what really take this album to the next level. You get Cody telling the story of how he met Jason Boland, and a recount of the moment that inspired the song “17.” You get the long version of the story behind the song “51 Pieces” about getting semi-busted in snowy Ohio (there’s a lot of marijuana talk on this album, incidentally). You get both of Canada’s sons Willie and Dierks on stage singing on “250,000 Things” and “Bluebonnets”; both songs that are written and inspired by the two boys respectively. And that is just the tip of the iceberg of the banter and bio that Some Old, Some New affords, including a monologue leading into the 2003 Ragweed hit “Constantly” where Canada says:
I think love songs should be celebrated and I think love songs should be written all the time. And I think all these people that are singing about beer and Jesus and roads and all that stuff, I think they need to stop doing that for a little bit and go fall in love for a little bit and grab a guitar and write about how much you love that person. And quit writing music about getting drunk. People get drunk when they’re sad or happy man, who gives a shit? I want to hear how much you love that broad. I want to fall in love with her.
Sure, banter and stories are not going to be as infectious as songs in the long run, but it gives Some Old, Some New a continuity and a mood that puts you right in the audience; something many live albums miss with their clean cuts between tracks. Banter makes up a great bit of this record, and you don’t need to be well-versed in Ragweed or Red Dirt lore to relate to it. There’s 19 total tracks on this record, captured at Third Coast Music in Port Aransas, TX, including two that reach over 11 minutes; a lot of material to say the least.
Some Old, Some New is an acoustic live record, but it’s not just another acoustic live record because Cody Canada is not just another artist. Dripping with charisma, it’s quizzical how he’s just royalty in Red Dirt and not the rest of country music until you realize that it is not this way because of injustice as much as Cody’s own choices. Cody Canada has always stood on priority and principle, putting family and friends and duty to the music first, and nowhere is this evidenced more than on this record.
1 ¾ of 2 guns up.
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If you asked me point blank who I thought was the best songwriter of our generation regardless of genre, scene, commercial or critical success, I would tell you without hesitation that it is Willy “Tea” Taylor from the interior valley cattle town of Oakdale, CA. His ability to enrich the perspective of life and all of its many wonders is unparalleled.
Willy “Tea” Taylor is an enigma, while at the same time being the most down-to-earth person you would ever meet. The co-frontman of The Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit, who also has a robust solo career, is cherished amongst his songwriting circles as someone who both challenges and inspires his contemporaries, making better songwriters out of the artists he comes in contact with. This is the motivation behind the 52 Week Club that Willy founded with fellow songwriters Tom VandenAvond and Chris Doud. Set in a game format, it pushes songwriters to increase their output and refine their craft through healthy competition, and has resulted in some of the remarkable output we’ve see from songwriters such as Olds Sleeper.
The mythos that bonds the songwriting circles around Willy “Tea” Taylor is embodied in the phrase “Searching for Guy Clark’s Kitchen”— inspired by the moments in the classic Outlaw country film Heartworn Highways where legendary songwriters like Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, and Steve Earle shared their most intimate compositions before they were known outside of Austin. Willy and Tom VandenAvond have a living film project shot in both HD and Super 8 also called Searching For Guy Clark’s Kitchen. “It’s gonna be at least 10 years, maybe 20 years before we finish it. I mean, do you ever find Guy Clark’s kitchen?” Willy says to me when he was gracious enough to sit down for a conversation ahead of a show at Austin’s White Horse Tavern.
Willy also shared how his love for baseball is interchangeable with his love for music and friends, why his tool of choice is a 4-string tenor guitar, and what makes him tick as both a songwriter and a person.
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The people that know about Willy “Tea” Taylor, almost to a man will say that you’re the best songwriter they know, but not many people seem to know Willy “Tea” Taylor. You don’t really come across as a guy who wants to promote yourself. What is your goal with music?
I’m not sure. I think I’m a lot like my grandad. He passed away a couple of years ago. He was just a cattleman, and that’s all he did. Until the day he died, he went and fed his cows. I’m a lot like him, because I think I’m just a songwriter. He surrounded himself with cattlemen. He wasn’t a world-renown cattleman, but around his circles, he was one of the best damn cattleman they had ever met. That’s just kind of what we know I reckon. It’s what I know. I really like meeting people. That’s probably the main thing. We’re all in the same web. If we’re really going to live together as one and be at peace, we should meet as many of each other if we can. And I think that’s kind of fun. So maybe it’s just fun to be an ambassador to my family and friends, go around and meet awesome people and introduce them to each other, and that’s a big part of it.
Kind of using music as a forum to break down barriers between people and create relationships and connections?
And create. It’s like an old ball glove. You can just smell it. That’s kind of how I want to feel as I live, is that smell. And everything I want to do and portray, that’s like the foundation of me is that smell of old saddles and old leather. There’s something swift going on, and it even gets me sometimes. It’s going way too fast for a lot of people to catch up, and most of us, we have a hard time just taking a break and realizing what’s real anymore, and what that baseball glove smells like. Then it’s hard to even trust anything anymore, and then you forget how to trust. And it’s all just going so fast. And it’s got me a little depressed as a human.
How important is your hometown of Oakdale, CA to you and your music?
It’s all of it. 38 years. I’m almost 38. It’s pretty much everything I reckon. Going through the country, there’s other inspirations, but I always seem to come back to where I’m at. Tom VandenAvond, he sings about every town. He just pulls from everywhere and it’s so amazing. He’s such a great writer, such an observer, and a thoughtful person. I think I maybe just get more self-absorbed in my town and my history, maybe just trying to figure myself out. Once I decided to just be a songwriter…because I used to be a construction worker, I used to be a glass blower. I used to be a pizza guy throughout my life. I’m like, “I’m just gonna be a songwriter.” If I can say I’m a construction worker, I can just as easily say that I’m a songwriter. And it magically starts providing in this weird way if you become what you really are.
You’re also in a band called the Good Luck Thrift Store Outfit with this other excellent songwriter Chris Doud. The relationship y’all have is as dual songwriters for this band. Do you see it as more like a healthy, friendly competition, or ….
That’s definitely it. When me and Tommy (Tom VandenAvond) started the 52 Week Club, that’s all it was, and Chris Doud has always been in that spirit since we were young. He’s one of the best creators I know. He’s a teacher, he’s got 2 kids, he all over the place, he’s always recording, and I have no idea where he finds the time. But he dazzles me all the time. He’s one of the best songwriters I know. When me and Tommy first met, every song from there on out has been from that meeting. It was like, “Hey, where you been? There’s my best friend.” And then it’s just been this creation and we started this giant web of songwriting. Like, “You want to write a song? Bring it! Do it!” And there’s so many people that had never done it before, and Chris, Me, and Tom just came out on fire with that. Chris keeps up on it all the time; he likes that game a lot. I imagine he’s got like hundreds and hundreds of songs that are just great and nobody’s ever heard, and he’s always working on something. I’m just the total opposite. It just comes when it comes, you know. It’s all about finding where your groove is I guess.
I want to talk about your guitar. You play this 4-string tenor guitar. Your original one, was it a Gibson?
Yeah, a 1929 Gibson.
And now you showed me today a new one you got.
A 1927 Martin. This one’s a little smaller. But man is she groovy. I like her a lot. I love the Gibson. I haven’t played it in a while. The Gibson is beautiful. I just learned to play the banjo first, and then I learned to play the mandolin, and I thought there’s got to be something in the middle there. And I always remembered there was an Irish guitar I saw in a book. I’m like, “Well that’s got 4 strings.” Tune it like a banjo, and there you go. A ‘G’ tuning mostly. I’ve found all kinds of fun tunings, but mostly just in a standard open ‘G’.
Does baseball and music have more similarities than people would think?
Oh yeah. Baseball has more similarities to Earth. It’s quite a sport, I’ll tell you that right now. It’s pretty special. The more I learn similarities is being on the road with your pals, and you realize, we’re actually a barnstorming baseball team right now. We’re going from town to town, and you’re obviously a starting pitcher, you’re obviously a 3rd baseman in the way you play the banjo and just carry yourself. You can see the similarities of who a second baseman is, or who’s got potential as a pitcher, and you learn your friends. And if you learn your team, you can go to The World Series, or you can be the Bad News Bears, which is fine too. That’s kind of what the baseball movie I’m making is about. It’s basically a team of ten dudes, and all the characters are based on all my friends who are traveling musicians. If you were like, “How do I go back to a barnstorming baseball team? What we’re they thinking?” And then I’m sitting in a van with Larry & His Flask for a month and I’m like, “Oh, I know what they’re thinking.” It’s exactly the mentality of it. It’s great. You know your buddies and you’re like, “Dude, you’re going to The Show.” There’s no doubt about it. He’s batting .400. And you watch your friends and they go to The Show. It’s far out.
You’ve talked about how you feel the world is speeding up too much and people are becoming cattle. Do you have an underlying theme or message that you’re trying to convey through your music?
I’m just trying to pull myself out of the herd. I don’t necessarily want to preach to anybody. I’m afraid of going through the cattle shoot myself. I’d rather live as a rogue bull. I guess if I was to evaluate my game if I was catching, my music is just kind of notes I take. Maybe it’s something to look at myself. I find that I write songs that, I don’t know why I wrote them, but then three years later it’s like, “Oh, I wrote that for myself, and now here I’m at,” and I get past fucking it up again. You know, from being with women, being with my kids. You know, just learning how to live. Sure, sometimes I like to make a fun story up, but usually there’s a purpose behind it that is partly to do with my learning in life.
I’ve had some open and honest reservations about Bloodshot Records’ cowpunk princess Lydia Loveless over her short career, it’s true, but while always appreciating her spunk and energy and style, and her ability to land comedic punches in her verses like few others. Lydia is a fun artist, that can’t be denied. It’s just that some of the accolades seemed to come to Lydia a little bit premature, and some of the rock & roll attitude felt outmoded compared to the genuineness that many artists in the recent roots revolution exhibit, both through their music and on stage.
Lydia’s 2011 Indestructible Machine seemed to take a little too much pleasure in her self-destructive tendencies, and though her singing and sonic style showed much promise, it still felt like it was searching for its proper place. No doubt there was more good than bad, but there were just a few hangups keeping me from entering full fledged fandom.
Ahead of a new full-length album promised from Lydia in 2014 is a quick little EP called Boy Crazy. Though I have no specific intel telling me so, in my mind I envision Lydia getting ready to finish her new album, having a few too many songs, and seeing how these five selections fit so well together, deciding to release them this way. Whether that’s true or not, the songs of Boy Crazy all do work well together to the point where they equal a sum greater than their parts and may be diminished if they were orphaned from each other. This is important, because it answers the question every artist thinking about the EP route must answer, which is “Why release an EP if an LP will be better?”
Boy Crazy is a straight ahead power pop album with punkish and country undertones that draws you right in with it’s juicy hooks and melodies, witty lyrics, fun themes, and general good-timedness. Any wonkiness from Lydia trying to find her sound has slipped away for tight grooves and cunning, infectious arrangements that if anything are almost too accessible, making you wonder if it’s okay to get so deep into this music, or if it should be considered a guilty pleasure.
Both the “Boy” and “Crazy” of the title are important here, because the five songs of this EP are all love songs of one version or another, but told through Lydia’s signature skewed, unsettled, and sometimes substance-altered vision of reality. You get the picture that Lydia’s version of love is just as much swinging fists and shattered windows as it is serenades, but she’s also not afraid to show her sweet and vulnerable sides. Boy Crazy comes across as powerfully sincere in places, especially in the concluding track, “The Water,” while the ultra-infectious “Lover’s Spat” is a crazy-eyed donnybrook of love gone mad with a punk soundtrack. “All I Know” and “All The Time” are significantly more sensible, but just as engaging, and “Boy Crazy” is anthemic in how it rises and draws you in.
This Boy Crazy EP is what it is—a quick little album with some cool, charming songs with a loose theme holding them all together. Some trepidation remains for Lydia on my part, but maybe most importantly with this EP is it really wets your appetite for what Lydia might have coming with her new full-length project.
Fun little album.
1 ¾ of 2 guns up.
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Kellie Pickler’s 2012 album 100 Proof was like its own little country music revolution. Emanating from the unholy bowels of Sony Music Nashville, the album demonstrated Kellie snatching back creative control from the jaws of corporate music America to make the kind of record she wanted. The result was a critically-acclaimed, traditional, yet boldly forward and assertive offering that eventually landed on the tip of many music writer’s pens as the project that stood above all others in country music in 2012.
This also set the table for Kellie Pickler’s 2013 offering The Woman I Am to be one of the most anticipated releases this year. After Sony fumbled every opportunity to make 100 Proof the blockbuster it could have been in a gross example of boardroom malfeasance fit for a theme from ABC’s drama Nashville, Kellie and Sony Nashville separated, and she saddled up with the much smaller, but certainly capable and established Black River Entertainment for this new effort, far away from the trappings of her famous American Idol past, and much closer in inspiration and approach to the Outlaw legacy of country music than anyone could have ever anticipated from an American Idol alum.
Kellie, willing to focus less on the commercial flop of 100 Proof and more on its critical success, kept much of the same personnel and approach in place for The Woman I Am, including the same producer Frank Liddell. Similar to 100 Proof, The Woman I Am at times speaks very deeply from Pickler’s personal narrative. The opening track “A Little Bit Gypsy” starts the album out very strong, and similar to many of the songs on 100 Proof, it stays out of the well-worn ruts of easily-anticipated chord changes, instilling spice in the music and engaging the listener.
But as your tingling spider sense may have been telling you as you read the previous paragraph, there is a “but.” And the “but” is that a decent amount of the songwriting on The Woman I Am just doesn’t hold up to the standards Kellie Pickler set on her last record.
To start off, despite what the title of the album might infer, Kellie Pickler’s songwriting voice is somewhat buried on this project. Compared to 100 Proof where Kellie wrote or co-wrote 6 of the songs, including some of the album’s standout tracks, Kellie only has 3 co-writes on this one. What we get instead is a heavy dose of her husband, songwriter Kyle Jacobs. Overall the songwriting on The Woman I Am takes more of a professional, Nashville approach, instead of the personal one of the previous album, leaving behind that unique, signature, unpredictable flavor that made Kellie Pickler and 100 Proof such a high watermark.
Though it is the men of mainstream country music that receive the brunt of the criticism for using the same lyrical themes over and over, the women aren’t completely innocent from following songwriting formulas and falling back on crutch phrases. These revenge and “girl gone crazy” songs perpetuated by artists like Miranda Lambert, The Pistol Annies, and even Carrie Underwood where the heroine is getting back at the bad boyfriend by kicking ass and lighting stuff of fire may not be as tired as the tailgate songs, but we’re starting to get close. The Woman I Am has a couple of these songs, including the Chris Stapleton-written second track, surely slated for a single called “Ring For Sale,” and the three snaps in a ‘Z’ formation aspect of “No Cure For Crazy.” These songs are simply meant to convey attitude, and give female listeners the same dose of escapism a hellraisin’ mud song does for their male counterparts.
The Woman I Am just seems safe, like in the predictability of the songs “Closer To Nowhere” and “Bonnie and Clyde,” and though this may translate into commercial acceptance, it leaves the distinguished country music listener a little wanting. With 100 Proof the production was an excellent balance between traditional and progressive. The Woman I Am‘s production would probably be best described with a few exceptions as simply “mainstream safe.”
But it may not be fair to keep comparing The Woman I Am to 100 Proof, and the production may be more of a symptom of what the songwriters were giving Kellie and producer Frank Liddell to work with; not affording them those cool chord changes or unique themes that allow for a deeper exploration of sonic parameters, nor the inspiration from a truly original story.
Simply put, I wanted more Kellie Pickler on this album.
At the same time, The Woman I Am certainly has its moments, and starts and finishes off strong. “Little Bit Gypsy” and its progressive chord play harkens back to what made 100 Proof so cool. “Selma Drye” about Kellie Pickler’s great grandmother shows just how engaging Kellie Pickler can be when she gets deeply personal, and the songs is bolstered by a very fun, yet traditional and acoustic-driven approach. Though some of the lines of “I Forgive You” and “Where Did Your Love Go” are a little too saccharine for the deep message the songs try to convey, the messages prevail, making for standout songs. And though “Someone, Somewhere Tonight” seemed like a very curious pick for a lead single, it embodies a lot of depth and substance, and showcases Picker’s vocal strengths perfectly. Despite some of the weakness of the song matter, Kellie’s vocal performances are sensational throughout The Woman I Am.
Though The Woman I Am sort of dashes any hopes for Kellie Pickler as an artist that could crash the Music Row party from the inside out and foster a new spring of substance and roots in mainstream country music, that doesn’t mean there isn’t some good songs, and good music here. “Kellie Country” is still much better than mainstream country, and though it may be a stretch to label her an Outlaw, she is certainly a rebel, and continues to be a refreshing choice.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up.
When speaking about pure, raw musical talent, there may not be a better specimen in the entire music world than violin player, and singer-songwriter Ruby Jane from Austin, TX. To know the girl is to know this to be true, and when she was tested on the road as part of Willie Nelson’s Family Band and Ray Benson’s Texas Swing outfit Asleep At The Wheel at the ripe age 14, Ruby proved herself to packed audiences night after night.
But raw talent can be hard to tame, hard to take from stage right to stage center, and hard to shape into a transferable commodity in 2013. Talent is no longer enough. There’s no collective will to put the best and brightest of society on a pedestal. And as the years tick towards an 18th birthday, the wonder a prodigy can evoke begins to diminish and originality must rise up to fill the void.
The most difficult time for a child music prodigy is that transition into musical adulthood. Ruby Jane, who’s now 19-years-old and graduated from High School, had big promises and bigger hopes of being backed by one big industry outfit or another that seemed to show up and fade throughout her career. You’d be a fool not to recognize the talent, but what to do with it? Where does it fit in the music world?
Then the mother of all bad luck scenarios played out on December 8th, 2011 in Houston, TX when Ruby and her mother were carjacked, held at gunpoint, had everything taken from them including all of Ruby’s music gear and merch and their phones and ID’s, and left on the side of the road in the middle of the night to fend for themselves.
But the world must keep turning, and in the aftermath of the tragedy, Ruby recorded an album called Celebrity (Empire of Emptiness). Though the theme and moral was spot on, and there were certainly shimmers of the superlative Ruby Jane talent we all knew was there, the album seemed to showcase a violin maestro trying to find her voice, both figuratively and literally, and the album had a foggy aspect to the final mixes, like it was hindered by a lack of good process. For some, the album spoke to them. But it seemed to fall short of the promise of what the world-class talent of Ruby Jane could achieve.
Celebrity (Empire of Emptiness) also solidified Ruby Jane’s departure from anything “country.” And who could blame her? With all that talent, why would you she want to be lumped in with the Florida Georgia Line’s of the world? Ruby’s talent is too great to be confined to one genre, but the departure meant the diminishing of the skins she had assembled during touring with Willie, being the youngest invited fiddler to ever play the Grand Ole Opry stage, and her other country accolades. It wasn’t that these accomplishments didn’t mean anything anymore, it’s that they just didn’t mean as much to the new music spheres she was now entering.
Meanwhile Austin did what Austin does, which is offer the safest of havens for any artist who can show promise and talent, while generally failing to develop or nurture that talent beyond the city limits, especially in days that have seen the epicenter of independent music shift demonstrably toward Nashville, while Austin seems to be precariously hanging onto its musical lineage as condominium complexes and hipsters encroach on Austin’s heart, and it’s traditional musical infrastructure focuses less on developing talent, and more on serving a wealthy elite.
But no matter how the deck is stacked, you would be a fool to bet against the talent of Ruby Jane. Despite all the hardships, the violin and the spirit preservers, and being a Ruby Jane follower, you inherently hold on to a sense that it is simply a matter of time before all the stars align and Ruby Jane’s ship comes in.
Not attached to an announcement of a new album or any other notable news, Ruby Jane has released a new single and a new video called “Ticket Out.” Written by Ruby, and produced by Mario Marchetti who’s worked with The Lumineers and some other notable names from the the pop world in the past, “Ticket Out” evokes a Lumineers-esque vibe with a heavy, woody bass beat and hand claps, but is centered mostly around the chorus hook “I’ll be your ticket it out of town” that grips the listener and sets a fun, positive mood in a song that has great energy and momentum.
Some may feel like the song is a little too simple, but Ruby’s violin is given its moments to shine and offer substance to the song, and Ruby’s songs have always been a tale of two approaches: Mind-blowing, composition-based, deftly-constructed instrumental pieces, and lighthearted singer-songwriter material.
The video, directed by Nyle Emerson, captures a day in the life of Austin’s young, hip culture, with a curly-mustached protagonist trying to shake his angst by courting a flame-haired food trailer chef on a trek to a swimming hole. With its still-shot animation, the “Ticket Out” video matches the mood and motion of the song and story, and illustrates great depth, attention, and heart.
Blame Willie Nelson, blame her Texas blood and her Mississippi spirit, but Ruby has always been an outlaw of sorts, wanting to do things her own way and carve her own path. But where good art can turn great is when an artist can see when their expressions can bloom and reach their full potential by getting other people involved, and people that have their best interests first. The Mario Marchetti collaboration on “Ticket Out” may not be the final solution to Ruby finding her place, or it might. We’ll just have to see. But it certainly is a step in the right direction.
I like it.
1 ¾ of 2 guns up. 4 of 5 stars.
Will Hoge in so many ways is sitting in the enviable catbird seat of music crossroads right now. This rocker who grew up in Franklin, TN and lives in Nashville has always been more rock than country, with songs that speak deep to middle America and its struggles and victories; more indicative of John Mellencamp and Bob Seger, both sonically and lyrically than country or Southern rock. However, being positioned in Music City and being a brilliant songwriter, he’s always rubbed shoulders with the country crowd and been signed to Nashville publishing houses. As country music continuously favors a more rock than country sound, Will Hoge, without having to make any stretches or augmentations of his sonic palette, finds himself in the sweet spot of the relevancy arch, reaping the rewards of a renewed interest in a style he’s been perfecting in one capacity or another since the mid-90′s.
With years worth of dues paid as a songwriter and performer, the sweat and music is finally paying off. Eli Young Band had a #1 hit with Will’s song “Even If It Breaks Your Heart,” and the song went on to be nominated for a CMA, ACM, and a Grammy. And then most notably, Chevy picked up his song “Strong” to comprise the soundtrack for their Silverado pickup truck for the foreseeable future, just like Hoge’s sonic forefathers of Mellencamp and Seger did before him. Yes, he’s the guy who sings that song you hear played on Sunday afternoons. Some call the song a sellout, others rebuff that claim, but either way, the Will Hoge music experiment has finally paid off, and as a singer-songwriter more traditionally fit for the rock world, he must be more than happy to weather the implosion of the rock format nestled in the warm cockles of country.
Never Give In is a strong-jawed, grit-under-the-fingernails, everyday Joe affirmation of hard work ethics and navigating through hard times, and treads pretty straight down the middle of the musical path Hoge has always followed. Not as dark or dirty as say a Chris Knight, but with a comparable amount of effort to tell a story that touches people, and makes heroes out of everyday folks. Hoge can almost fool you on how deep his songwriting can go because sonically he’s not afraid to match up his stories with sensible hooks and instrumentation that cast a wide net. In this respect, even though Hoge is very much a Tennessee boy, he finds safe haven in the Texas scene that strikes this same balance between lyrical depth and musical sensibilities.
Even when Hoge is telling a happy story, like in the opening song “A Different Man,” or in “Bad ‘Ol Days,” there’s always that tinge of forlorn sorrow, and head-hanging acceptance of innate frailty. Hoge knows how to imbibe his songs with nostalgia through subtleties in lyrics instead of excessive reverb or other silly recording tricks. And when he goes for the jugular and really tries to hit on the soul of a story like he does in the song “Home Is Where The Heart Breaks,” he can touch a whole spectrum of emotional triggers.
Understand that this is a rock project, however much it may rub elbows with the country realm, and Will Hoge would tell you the same thing. But if you yearn for that time when classic rock explored and expounded on the rigors of the human condition with heart and depth, with a sound that hearkens to the Heartland, then Will Hoge and Never Give In will be just your speed.
1 ¾ of 2 guns up. 4 of 5 stars.
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“Songs About Trucks” performed by Wade Bowen and written by hot songwriting commodities Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally has become one of 2013′s big anti-hits with its off message take on truck songs and their daisy chains of clichés. Usually accompanying these odes to idiocracy are modern country music videos complete with hot rods, hot girls, and jacked up trucks burning brodies in churned up mud, hurdling themselves headlong toward the cause of finding a new frontier for image-driven misogynistic consumerism and sheer indolency. So it is only appropriate that Bowen’s anti-hit should be accompanied by an anti-video.
Shot and produced by James Weems and Glen Rose, the “Songs About Trucks” video co-stars filmmaker Blake Judd of JuddFilms as an overzealous Nashville videographer looking to turn a timid Wade Bowen into an oversexed country star, fitting him with designer duds, dapping makeup on his face as he squints and pouts, while bikini-clad coeds cool down in the water getting ready for their juggy cameos. Eventually Bowen slunks off the set to sit in a bar with a lone cameraman, telling his story in a simple manner.
Just as some have pointed out that songwriter Shane McAnally has had a hand in some of the recent “bro country” songs that “Songs About Trucks” looks to lampoon, filmmaker Blake Judd also has been behind the camera for some “titties and tailgates” shoots, including the Bucky Covington / Shooter Jennings collaboration “Drinking Side of Country” and the Jawga Boyz / Joe Diffie mashup “Girl Ridin’ Shotgun.” It may have been cool if the “Songs About Trucks” video took the sensationalism to the next level, with legions of buxom chicks dancing and an army of mud-caked trucks, but Bowen probably doesn’t have the budget the big boys do. Nonetheless, this video does a good job illustrating what is at the heart of the message of “Songs About Trucks” and Wade Bowen as an artist, which is an honest portrayal of a man who just wants to be seen as one of us, instead of an entertainer on a pedestal.
1 ¾ of 2 guns up. 4 of 5 stars
As if we needed any more validation that it is a new day in the realm of independent country roots, darn near a dozen years since The Devil Makes Three first struck a chord, they’re finally getting their due: headlining festivals, playing packed, sold out shows, and recently being signed to the prestigious New West Records, and even wrangling the legendary Buddy Miller of all people to produce their latest album I’m A Stranger Here appropriately released on Halloween week.
All of this is after a few years ago when it looked like the band could go either way. They never stopped touring or releasing new music, but frontman Pete Bernhard was releasing solo records, studying herbalism, and working at the Bohemian Grove. But something has clicked over the last few years, their live show is better than ever, and they’re riding the upswing in interest in the roots that they helped fuel themselves with their punk-infused interpretation of old time string music.
I’ll be honest with you, when I initially listened to this record, I thought it was going to be a hard sell. It’s a fairly dirty recording for starts, with no real crispness to it or a separation of the parts. Of course this was on purpose to capture the live, vintage feel that The Devil Makes Three tries to attain, but I found myself having to listen through some muddiness to really glean the lyric or the heart of the song the first few times through. It’s also a fairly sparse project, and I was worried there just wasn’t enough here to sell it to a wide audience.
But The Devil Makes Three can’t be denied, and after a few listens, you’re wearing out your repeat button. What The Devil Makes Three does so well is the same thing Pokey LaFarge does: they pick up on all the subtleties and nuances of vintage string music, not just the big, obvious flavors and modes. What then separates The Devil Makes Three from Pokey is that they pay that appreciation forward with a punk attitude. With so many of the string bands around these days—you darn near need to affix a cattle guard to your coach just to shoo them all aside when driving through a college town—the sentiment seems to be that vintage instruments and curly mustaches are all it takes. They don’t pick up on the nuances that made old time music timeless. They’re simply playing new music with old instruments.
The Devil Makes Three are not fast players. They don’t set your head spinning with blazing technique or technical song structures made to impress you with their prowess. They simply know how to meld melody to story like few others, making their songs stick to your bones and embed in your brain until you downright crave this music. Anyone with enough time and disciple can learn how to move their fingers quickly. It’s a whole other skill set to be able to listen to music and deduce how it speaks directly to the human soul.
I’m A Stranger Here doesn’t stray too far from the traditional, 3-piece lineup of the band, with frontman Pete Bernhard, Lucia Torino on standup bass, and Cooper McBean on banjo and guitar. But there are a few horn sections, a little percussion for added flavor, and the fiddle makes a welcome appearance as well. Songs like “Worse Or Better” and “Dead Body Moving” wear down your resistance to move uncontrollably and are bolstered by Lucia Torino’s sweet harmonies. “Hallelu” and “Spinning Like A Top” make you dizzy from the deliberate use of wit in the lyrics and are finished off with an infectious melody. “Stranger” and “Forty Days” evoke the ragtime/early jazz influences that make up the unique sound of The Devil Makes Three.
This one may take a few initial spins, but you very well may find your next favorite record. I’m A Stranger Here is finally affording The Devil Makes Three the national recognition they’ve deserved as being one of the first, and one of the best of the punk-infused string bands.
1 ¾ of 2 guns up. 4 of 5 stars.
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One of the great things about roots music is its Gothic legacy of cautionary tales, ghost stories, murder ballads, messages to the infirmed, and other such methods of macabre that allow country and roots artists to paint in dark colors when they so choose. This makes roots music one of the best realms to draw from when putting together your Halloween playlist. Here is a list of some of the artists who dabble in the dark side of country and roots.
The things that hide under beds, in closets, and eerily disappear when you shine a light their way are what conspire and collaborate to create the inspiration for Lincoln Durham and his dark tales of murder and inner mayhem, belted out with a voice that can meld like a shape shifter and carries behind it the soul of 1000 black men. A conjugation of deep blues, Gothic country, and dark folk, Durham fits nowhere and everywhere in the music world all at the same time. Halloween is tailor made for Lincoln Durham’s music, and so is his just-released album Exodus of the Deemed Unrighteous.
You can’t get more Halloween and country than the King of Country & Western Troubadours that happens to also be a 300-year-old vampire. Unknown Hinson has what you need to keep your country-themed Halloween soundtrack rolling by blending a classic country sound with his creepy, blood-thirsty pursuits of “womerns” that always seems to take the darkest of turns. After saying last year he was done for good, the man who also is the voice of the character Early Cuyler from Cartoon Network’s Squdbillies announced earlier this year he was back from the dead, and will be touring regularly. Unknown’s alter ego Stuart Daniel Baker also happens to be one hell of a guitar player.
The Bloody Jug Band
When you have The Bloody Jug Band to listen to, you can celebrate Halloween all year. Similar to Unknown Hinson mentioned above, they make their dark music doubly entertaining by instilling humor into their music. But The Bloody Jug Band is no bit. Their debut album Coffin Up Blood was a nominee for Saving Country Music’s 2012 Album of the Year from the creativity and innovation they display though music that is dark and funny, but also shows how roots music can evolve while still paying respect and residing within its heritage.
Lonesome Wyatt & The Holy Spooks
There’s nothing better for Halloween than a good ghost story, and Lonesome Wyatt & The Holy Spooks have a whole catalog of them, including the freshly-exhumed album released just for this season called Halloween Is Here, complete with ghost stories and songs molded in the classic Halloween album style. Parental guidance would be strongly suggested, but some of Lonesome Wyatt’s songs and stories even work well for kids. And for all your year-round gloomy needs, look no further than Lonesome Wyatt’s other Gothic country concept, Those Poor Bastards.
Like a foreboding raven who sits high on her perch and caws out her cautionary tales of murder, deceit, and a world gone mad, Rachel Brooke’s music is dark as it is wise. From ghost stories to murder ballads, Rachel has Halloween covered, with numerous songs from her catalog ripe for the witching hour. Another spooky project worth dropping in your trick or treat bag is the collaborative effort with the aforementioned Lonesome Wyatt called A Bitter Harvest.
The Slow Poisoner
Halloween was made for The Slow Poisoner, and The Slow Poisoner was made for Halloween. As equally creepy as he is creative, this comic book writer and illustrator haunts the San Francisco public schools as a substitute teacher by day, and puts on one of the most entertaining live one man band shows you can see by night, complete with big creepy cue cards and other live props while he peddles his Egyptian oils and other wares through his dark music.
Sons of Perdition
From the disturbed imagination of Zebulon Whatley comes one of the core bands of the modern Gothic country era. Similar to Lonesome Wyatt and the Those Poor Bastards (who’ve been known to collaborate with the Sons of Perdition in the past) Zebulon draws heavily on religious dogma mixed with a dark perspective for inspiration. The Sons of Perdition’s ghastly hymns are enough to keep the ghosts haunting you all night, and are set to release a new album Trinity on November 12th.
The Goddamn Gallows
If you like your roots music dark, it doesn’t get any darker than The Goddamn Gallows. With their old soul tales from a scarier time, The Gallows are like a freak medicine show set to music, or a haunted carnie ride rattling off its tracks and plunging you into a deep, dark place where only the most unsettled of thoughts go. Complete with pounding drums and a washboard player that breathes fire, these guys are like the soothsayers of the Apocolypse.
Other Dark Roots Bands Ripe for Halloween:
- Pine Box Boys
- The Haunted Windchines
- Those Poor Bastards
- Slim Cessna’s Auto Club
- Jay Munly
- Ray Wylie Hubbard
- Johnny Cash
- Nick Cave
- Slackeye Slim
- Viva Le Vox
- Black Jake & The Carnies
- The Perreze Farm
- The Slaughter Daughters
- Lindi Ortega
- Tom Waits
- Jayke Orvis & The Broken Band
- Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers
- Larry & His Flask
- Shakey Graves
- .357 String Band
- Joe Buck Yourself
- O’ Death
- The Dinosaur Truckers
- Creech Holler
- Reverend Glasseye
- The Devil Makes Three
- Dad Horse Experience
- Joel Kaiser & The Devil’s Own
- Jesse Dayton
- Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys
- Pinebox Serenade
- Filthy Still
- Serial Killer
**NOTE: The image from the very top is from a now out-of-print dark roots compilation called Rodentia.
We ask a lot of our independent country and roots artists. We want them to release new music early and often, even though it stings them in the pocketbook to record. We want them to play our stupid town, even though it is way out of their way and the turnout will be light. We want them to perform in small, intimate venues, even though it’s not financially feasible for trying to take care of themselves, or God forbid, raise a family. We don’t want them to be too successful, lest their music loses its pain and soul. We don’t want them to age. We want them to see all the places, and do all the things we can’t, and maintain a party-filled lifestyle so we can then live vicariously though them as our own legs grow roots and our lives prosper from stability.
We want them to sleep on floors and eat like shit and sweat on stage and drive 700 miles to entertain us for three hours before passing out in their own filth for very little money. Our favorite artists roll into town and we reach deep in our pockets and hand them over all manner of items to fuel this madness and bring misfortune to them because they trend toward addictive, self-destructive personality to a greater degree. Then we sit back and watch them fall apart right in front of our faces, because for some reason, we find a certain beauty in their struggle and undoing. We shed the desire to slowly kill ourselves in our youth, so we ask our favorite musicians to do it for us in our stead. And the musicians, driven by their dreams, are more than happy to oblige.
And for what? If they sober up and try to find the straight and narrow, or solicit the suits for help with their music, we label them a sell out. If they don’t, it’s not very likely their music will ever afford them a sustainable living. And about the only way they will find suitable recognition for their artistic contributions is if they die young.
“Deadman’s Blues” is written and performed by Matt Woods from Knoxville, TN.
Video produced by Loch & Key Productions.
Two guns up.
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What Eric Church’s detractors are reluctant or unwilling to admit is that when it comes to the very top of country music’s male talent, Eric Church outlasts his competition in both substance and imagination. Of course that says just as much about the vacuum of creativity at the top of mainstream country as it does Eric Church’s aptitude. But while country’s men are stuck in an ever-devolving rut of laundry list raps and rehashed platitudes, Eric Church has been, and continues to try and strike new ground. He may be rude and arrogant, he may be as calculating and image-driven as any. But dammit, he’s innovative.
His last album Chief won the Album of the Year from both the CMA and ACM in the last awards cycle, as it probably should have compared to its competition. Eric Church will never win the popularity contests like “Entertainer” or “Male Vocalist” categories because he’s made more enemies than friends in the industry and beyond. But his music’s unpredictability is the magic quotient that can’t be denied, and continues to win him loyal fans.
It’s been well over 2 years since Eric released his last album, and time was beginning to wear thin on him being able to continue the positive momentum that crowned Church an arena-level draw in near record time. And so chasing a rather cryptic video released a few days ago comes a new radio single called “The Outsiders.” As to be expected, the song is driven by the hard rock guitar that has become Eric’s signature, as well as an avant-garde approach to structure and flow.
Yes, “The Outsiders” is unpredictable. Yes it is innovative. But that’s about where the accolades end for this muddy mess of a tune that offers virtually no direction, is void of narrative, and does not really even build a cohesive groove to hang its hat on. Sure, Church may steer clear of ice cold beer and pickup trucks, but he runs into a wall trying to produce some modern country version of a prog rock opera, complete with chamber choir (or a synthetic version thereof), a weird Les Claypool-style bass guitar break speed bumping the song smack dab in the middle, giving way to a synthesized interlude that sounds like it ripped off the soundtrack to an 8-bit video game before the song resolves in an unbridled wank off of hair metal stunt guitar.
“The Outsiders” is an attempt to write and produce a song by aggregating popular sonic elements and trying to squeeze them together instead of simply drawing a story and three chords from inspiration. The result is a Frankenstein-like monster; a colossus of corporate music that threatens to kill its makers. Though this type of machination might be acceptable, or even appreciated in some outer fringes of the metal world, in the country music format it’s downright laughable.
The message of “The Outsiders” draws upon Eric Church’s already-established marketing angle as an anti-star that represents the “rest of us” that have been disenfranchised by all the pretty, normal people. “We’re the other ones. It’s a different kind of cloth that were cut from,” Eric says, and then carries this theme throughout the song. Though this rhetoric may be tempting to the downtrodden, falling for its message is no less conformist that sporting a Florida Georgia line T-shirt. The overt nature of Church’s demographic baiting in “The Outsiders” is downright striking. Combined with the imagery from the initial “Outsiders” video, Eric looks to be wanting to make an army of misfits, and crown himself supreme leader.
This song has only been out for a day, and already a lot has been made of if this song should be considered country rap, or if Church is simply calling on a spoken cadence. I would say it is a little of both, which again touches on the manic, unsettled, unspecified, and confused nature of this song. Church more than likely wants to take advantage of the trend of avoiding melody in the verses, but doesn’t have the balls to go all Colt Ford on our asses. Lines like, “A players gonna play and a haters gonna hate,” and “that’s how we roll” may tip the scales of judgement towards the rap side of the world. But if you ask me, the rap vs. spoken word argument would only be worth the breath if “The Outsiders” had any redeeming value. Rap or not, it’s simply a bad, prog metal song being forced on the country format.
I don’t see this song becoming a commercial hit either. It’s way too confusing; way too fey. If Eric’s A&R folks decide to give it the hard sell to radio and maybe cut off the second half (which is a distinct possibility), it may raise a blimp on radio. But the majority of mainstream folks outside of Eric Church’s “Church Choir” will simply look at it sideways a wait for the next Luke Bryan ass shaker to wipe the memories of this weird song from their palette.
It’s simply one song, and shouldn’t be taken as the ultimate signifier of what to expect from Eric Church for his next two-year album cycle. But it sure doesn’t start it off with a good foot. Innovative or not, this one feels dramatically, dramatically overthought.
2 guns down.
Who knew that women could suffer from quiet desperation just as potently as men? Sure, maybe that theme has been touched on with subtle shades here and there in country music over the years, but rarely has it been delved into with such honesty, or been portrayed in such a moving manner as songwriting maestro Brandy Clark does in her breakout album 12 Stories.
The hidden dystopia seething under the smile of sweet suburban life, and the general dysfunction plaguing any and all affairs of the heart is the broken-minded madness that Brandy taps into with this album, following fed up and frustrated fraus who are willing to medicate themselves and match the misdeeds of their men sin for glorious sin. Frail, turbulent, vengeful, but still somehow empowered and held together by the strength and perseverance of womanhood, the heroins of Brandy Clark’s 12 Stories are as inspiring as they are shameful, and tragic as they are real.
Brandy Clark is a fast-rising songwriting commodity of the country music world to say the least. In a genre and time where a couple of lucrative songwriting credits can make you as hot of a topic as any, just as a lack thereof can label you forgotten, Brandy Clark, like some other female songwriters in country before her in 2013, proves that taking songwriting approach to getting noticed by the suits is the much more savory way to make your name than the performance realm and its plastic reality.
Brandy’s songwriting credits are considerable, and include Miranda Lambert’s “Mama’s Broken Heart,” The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two,” Kacey Musgraves’ “Follow Your Arrow,” and Wade Bowen’s anti-hit “Trucks.” Brandy is firmly ensconced in a close, songwriting circle that includes Kacey Musgraves, songwriter Shane McAnally, and a few select others. However she weaseled or worked her way into her current position, she is part of country music’s 2013 female songwriting revolution, painting in themes and colors that are counter-intuitive to Music Row’s tried and true tropes.
This album has what might be fair to portray as an “instant classic,” though it’s not likely to sniff the top of the country charts anytime soon. The song is called “Stripes” (see below), and it defines the keen sense of the female condition that Brandy Clark brings to her music that sets her apart from the fold. Because of the commercial implications, “Get High” might receive the most attention, and though it may be a little too obvious to a critical ear, the cunning lyricism is nonetheless noticeable, as it is in songs like “What’ll Keep Me Out of Heaven” and “The Day She Got Divorced.” The final track “Just Like Him” is the real gem of 12 Stories, swimming in heartbreak and emotional potency.
There aren’t a ton of criticisms to lob at Brandy Clark and 12 Stories but there are a few; the first being the similarities in themes to Kacey Musgraves and her own breakout album, Same Trailer, Different Park. This is to be expected, seeing how Clark and Musgraves have worked together so intimately, but it makes 12 Stories feel like the second album instead of the first. Songs that like to try to reveal the farce of suburban life, the drug and pill references, how the song’s characters have a careless, almost arrogant, “I don’t give a shit what the world thinks” tone begin to wear their own grooves of predictability, despite residing out of Nashville’s beaten path. A few years ago, a marijuana reference in a country song was scandalous. Now it is passe, and can’t be the only thing a song is constructed around unless the song’s sole purpose is to sell.
The music on 12 Stories is also similar to Musgraves, though this isn’t necessarily a criticism. Progressive and at times rhythmic, with dalliances in traditional country instrumentation and sparseness. Sonically the album is sensible, and you find yourself spending much more attention on the words than the music—a good sign for a songwriter’s album.
The other important observation about 12 Stories is that very similarly to some Pistol Annies and Miranda Lambert material, this album could appeal very differently to the respective genders. Ladies will love it, while some men will look at it a little sideways. Somewhere deep in this music is enough truth that men who listen deeply will discover something to relate to, but I’m not sure it’s fair to judge a man if he is unable to find it. This album is steeped in a women’s perspective, and is quite harsh on its male characters.
Many have 12 Stories on their short list for “album of the year” and such. That is a very fair and understandable take, but I’m not sure I’m willing to go there, at least not yet. Nonetheless, Brandy Clark does a very commendable job telling her 12 Stories, and you would be wise to listen.
1 ¾ of 2 guns up. 4 of 5 stars.
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Gone are the days of the legendary duet pairings in country music like George and Tammy, Loretta and Conway, right? Well they may not boast beehive doos or lamb chops, or grace the stage of the CMA Awards or come beaming into your home or buggy via the miracle of Clear Channel radio, but the Austin country scene’s power couple of Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay have revitalized the country duet concept album in a smart, brilliant, hilarious, and sweet offering called Before The World Was Made.
You’ll be sorely disappointed if you’re in the mood for sappy sonnets serenading the human love quotient. This is a love album for lovers who hate each other, and love each other all the same. It’s not that sentimentality doesn’t show its face here, but just like the real world, Before The World Was Made is not afraid to delve into the turbulence of love, to tickle the funny bone, and to tell it like it is.
This album is the perfect soundtrack to an “it’s complicated” relationship status, with ingenious songs like “Breaking Up Is Easy,” “Breaking Up and Making Up Again,” “Be My Ball and Chain,” and “Let’s Don’t Get Married.” Yes, it sounds like a gloomy outlook, but underlying every song of this “on again, off again” album is a sweet love story that you can’t help believing mirrors Brennen Leigh’s and Noel McKay’s real-life narrative.
You can relate to their silly little squabbles and how they plot to resolve them with a positive ending. The way these songs work is both classic and fresh. Even walking in to Before The World Was Made with a deep appreciation for the songwriting chops of both parties, you are still perplexed at how Brennen and Noel wrote this entire album themselves, simply from the strength and the “instant classic” caliber of these songs.
Even the more straightforward love songs like “The Only Person In The Room” and “Salty Kisses In The Sand” are so fresh and clever, they fit right in to the cunning style of this record. “Let’s Go To Lubbock on Vacation” is downright side-splitting (sorry Lubbock readers), while still at its core being a nectarous little love story.
Before The World Was Made doesn’t let up for one moment, and it’s not just all about the words. The album is bolstered by tasteful, classic country arrangements, edified by producer extraordinaire Gurf Morlix. This is a neo-traditional country album at its heart, and the music offers tasty accompaniment to these high-caliber compositions.
Can’t say enough about Brennen, Noel, and Before The World Was Made. They may not be willing to commit to each other, but the music they make together is definitely a keeper.
Two guns up.
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Listen to album below.
I remember back in the early 90′s, someone told me they had done a complete archival scan of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body using lasers, so that even in the future he could star in action movies. I’m not sure if that was an urban myth or not, and certainly the technology to pull off something like that would be in much better order today than when Arnold was starring in Terminator 2. But whatever the technology was then, and whatever it is now, they really should employ it and in full measure towards making sure the sound of Willie Nelson’s voice, and that earthy tone of his guitar Trigger never disappear from the face of the earth. Because few things can make that warm feeling roll over you from head to toe like Willie.
To All The Girls is Willie Nelson’s third album to come from his recent partnership with Sony’s Legacy Recordings, and the second to come out this year. The record features an ample 18 tracks, each constituting a duet with a female counterpart drawing from a wide swath of talent that includes both legacy names like Loretta Lynn and Emmylou Harris, and some new names like The Secret Sisters and Brandi Carlile. The pairings alone are enough to make the country music listener salivate, while the variety of names passively bridges tastes and segments residing under country music’s big tent.
Though Willie Nelson doesn’t make the easiest duet partner because of the unusual phrasings he uses—a trait that over the years has become his signature (and continuously more pronounced)—Willie, each of his dance partners, and producer Buddy Cannon do a good job arranging the singing parts to where Willie could still call on his avant-garde phrasings, yet the duet could come across seamless. The vocal performances are superb, and the 18 ladies on To All The Girls illustrate just how much female talent country music boasts, regardless of how rarely their names may show up on the top of the country charts these days.
But despite the names and the commendable performances, To All The Girls is a somewhat sleepy as a whole. This may seem unconscionable to say with so much star power, but out of the 18 songs, only 2 could be characterized as residing in the mid tempo, and only two as up tempo. The rest are slow to very slow, and sparse, and though no one song could be singled out as being a snoozer, taken all together they can become the sonic equivalent of Unisom. Even the most up tempo track, the re-cut of Willie’s “Bloody Mary Morning” with Wynonna Judd features some amazingly hot guitar, steel, and piano solos, but they get somewhat buried in the mix almost as to not be an interruption.
There isn’t really a lot of texture or spice between the tracks, except for maybe the Spanish feel of “No Mas Amor” with Alison Krauss, or the Motown feel of the duet with Mavis Staples, “Grandma’s Hands.” Maybe this album was built more for the digital age to be cherry picked by respective fans of the guest artists instead of trying to take it as a whole, but by the end you wish this album could have been condensed into fewer tracks so it would result in some more memorable moments.
Did we really need 18 songs? Any time you can pair Willie Nelson with Dolly Parton, magic will happen. The songs are not the problem, though there are quite a few recognizable covers. It’s that the instrumentation that varies very little. I know, the music varies very little on Red Headed Stranger as well, but this album isn’t trying to take a conceptualized approach.
Willie Nelson started off his new deal with Sony utilizing producer Buddy Cannon on the album Heroes, which really showed a lot of vitality from the Willie camp, and was arguably one of his best albums in years. But one small thing that saddled the album as I explained in my review was the excessive collaborations that made the album feel a little too busy. Another Buddy Cannon-produced album, Jamey Johnson’s Living For A Song, A Tribute to Hank Cochran, drew a similar observation, and I even linked back to Willie’s Heroes review for context.
It ["Living For A Song"] makes the same mistake Willie Nelson’s last album Heroes does of having too many guests. And may I point out that both albums were produced by Buddy Cannon. Like I said about ”Heroes”:
Where the album may come across as too busy or unfocused is the amount of contributors to each composition, and to the album as a whole…Sure, many of these names we love, but there’s too many of them, diverting focus from any one pairing or performance.
And once again here is a Buddy Cannon-produced album that leans very heavily on collaborations and cover songs. Willie Nelson can still write and select good, original songs, and we saw that with Heroes. What I’m worried is we’re seeing an approach to sell albums creep into the album making process, loading albums up on celebrity names that can later be used in promotional copy, or maybe trying to make up for what is perceived as a lack of appeal for Willie alone. Somewhere the music may have gotten lost as the most important thing.
But that’s not to take away from any single To All The Girls song. Maybe it’s because “Always On My Mind” is such a timeless tune, but this duet with Carrie Underwood kills it. “Grandma’s Hands” with Mavis Staples carries a lot of depth and meaning, maybe because Willie was himself raised by his grandmother. The Western swinging “Till The End of the World” with Shelby Lynne was a real standout, and so was Willie’s duet with his daughter Paula Nelson singing the CCR song “Have You Ever Seen The Rain.” And though Willie may have played “Bloody Mary Morning” 10,000 times by now, this might be the recorded version that is the best.
To All The Girls is a brilliant concept. I just wish a little more care would have been taken with the type of names and star power it assembled to really try to make a new generation of Willie classics and introduce him to a new generation of listeners through the names that lent their time to the project. But as well have all learned over the nearly 60-something years of his career, when it comes to Willie, the sound of his voice and that earthy tone from Trigger is enough to raise goosebumps all on their own.
1 ½ of 2 guns up. 3 of 5 stars.
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These are lines pulled from the opening track of Justin Moore’s new album Off The Beaten Path, and with a steel guitar riding high in the mix accompanying Justin’s imperatives and a wide-brimmed cowboy hat crowning his backlit visage splayed across the album cover, the distinguishing music listener who doesn’t care too much for today’s country radio may conclude they have just found a keeper.
Then of course a few songs later, Justin seems to forget his own proclamations and manages to name drop Kim Kardashian, J-Lo, Snoo P Double G, filch a line from “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” and even try his hand at country rapping. And that’s just in one song. Hey we’ve all got to eat, right?
Justin Moore’s 2011 album Outlaws Like Me was declared the worst album ever by Saving Country Music up to that moment in time; a diagnosis I still stand behind with puffed chest. Earlier this year when Moore somehow sniveled his way onto the lineup of Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic, as I stood 50 feet from the stage listening to Justin attempt to Svengali the crowd into believing that he was an industry outsider and one of the last champions of real country music, the only reason I didn’t rush the stage was because I didn’t have a good plan of what I would do when I got there, and I wanted to still be around later for Willie’s set.
Despite a few moments of respite, Off The Beaten Path is like an expeditionary campaign to discover and exploit every single worn out modern lyrical trope of American country music, and to try and make some new ones. Luke Bryan may be the latest of the discipline, but Justin Moore was the first to master disregarding any and all independent thinking or self-desired creative penchants to simply become the country music equivalent of Silly Putty for the suits to do whatever they choose with. And the fate they chose for Justin was to be Big Machine Record’s representative for attempting to re-integrate the revenue of anti-Nashville sentiment by misleading the public into believing Justin’s career was the result of a repressive industry looking to dog him at every turn because he was too country. Yes, he’s an Outlaw, bucking the system, flying in the face of artists like Taylor Swift….whom he shares the same record label with.
But though it would be easy and romantic to declare Justin Moore’s 2013 offering as bad enough to depose 2011′s Outlaws Like Me at the shameful peak of crap mountain and use this album as a vehicle to vent any and all unresolved anger held over from my personal life in the form of the most venomous of rants, the real truth of the matter is that Off The Beaten Path is not nearly as bad as one would initially assume.
It’s still more bad than good without a doubt, with a strong contingent of country checklist songs eroding any redemptive moments on the album and then some. But I was surprised how unpredictable this album was, how some songs took a really progressive approach instead of just relying on rock guitar riffs, and how many slow, meaningful songs made the final cut.
The only reason the song “Old Back In The New School” could be considered bad is because it’s coming from Justin Moore, rendering it hypocritical. But on it’s own, it’s not too shabby. Neither is the slow and sincere duet with Miranda Lambert “Old Habits.” In fact, it’s downright good, and wouldn’t be a bad contender for the “Vocal Event” categories of the big country award shows. If it weren’t for lines like “We work hard, play hard, take our paychecks straight to the Wal-Mart. Girls will out drink you, boys will out Hank you…” the song “This Kind Of Town” could really be something sensational in the way the song is crafted.
But unfortunately, that line does exist in the song, and so do a dozen other cringe-inducing moments on Off The Beaten Path. Really, it’s the words of this album that hold it back the most. There’s some authentic country instrumentation here, and some really sweet moments sonically. And then there’s songs like the title track that feel oh so cliche in both words and structure, and the aforementioned country-rapping name-dropping abomination known as “I’d Want It To Be Yours” that will probably receive its own dedicated diagramming and ridicule in due course.
As bad as it is, I have to give Justin Moore and his songwriters credit for guile in crafting the song “Country Radio” that will flatter every programming manager from coast to Clear Channel coast and probably make it into radio rotations despite its shortcomings. “For Some Ol’ Redneck Reason” that features a crotchety, borderline disturbing appearance from Charlie Daniels in a moment of token Patriotism probably won’t. Whatever happened to going to LA via Omaha?
But color me surprised. Certainly not a good album, and I’m definitely not recommending it. But on Off The Beaten Path, Justin Moore peels himself off the very bottom of the country music mat, and proves that maybe if he wasn’t such a tool, he would have a little something.
1 ½ of 2 guns down. 2 of 5 stars.
It’s so easy to get swept up in stereotyping mainstream country as being completely void of anything worth your time these days, but in truth there’s still a lot of great music in the popular music world, however a small percentage it might be of the total package. Saying the mainstream has nothing good to offer is narrowing your musical experience no different than saying that music is bad because it’s not popular. Life is too short to impose unnecessary limitations on your music perspective, and a strong case could be made that mainstream country has actually become better over the past few years when it comes to mainstream country’s females.
Some quick ground rules: Not included here are legends who still might be considered part of the mainstream but are obvious even to independent fans like George Strait, Alan Jackson, Vince Gill, Reba, and even more contemporary names like Martina McBride and Lee Ann Womack. They go without saying. Many consider Eric Church and Miranda Lambert as exceptions to the mainstream rules, but they’re both sort of their own case studies. Same could be said for the Pistol Annies who it is unclear if they even still exist at the moment. And of course if you think there’s a mainstream artist worth listening to not mentioned here, please feel to leave their name below in the comments. And just to clarify the term “mainstream,” consider it an artist that is on a major Nashville label, or has been on a major Nashville label recently.
In many respects you can’t blame independent fans of being a little suspicious of a former American Idol contestant signed to Sony who just won Dancing With The Stars. But Kellie Pickler’s staunchly authentic album 100 Proof was so damn good, Sony dropped her and she became the poster girl for taking back the music in 2012. Since then Kellie Pickler has done nothing but re-affirm her career path of doing things her own way and fighting for the integrity of the music, measuring success not by album sales, but how true she is being to herself. Pickler may not top the Billboard charts, but she’s become a critic’s favorite and an inspirational story of what can happen when a mainstream artist stands up for themselves.
I’m not sure what is more miraculous, that Easton Corbin is able to get away with being as country as he is in the mainstream, or that’s he’s actually been able to find some commercial success with that sound. Though some independent fans might find him a little cheesy, it is hard to deny that Easton Corbin’s music has substance, and the songwriting and traditional approach to his music is refreshing. Even his big #1 “A Little More Country Than That,” which some may decry as a laundry list song is at least country as it lists out its countryisms, and was written by Roy Lee Feek of the traditional group Joey + Rory. Singed to Mercury Nashville, Easton Corbin deserves as much credit as anyone for trying to keep the mainstream honest.
Though her much-anticipated debut album maybe have been a little more cautious than what her long-time fans know she’s capable of, Kacey Musgraves still remains the symbol of how songs and songwriting are making a resurgence in 2013. Though she has yet to have one Top 10 single, with support from her label Mercury Records, she has reached the very top echelon of female performers in the country music industry, somehow becoming a perennial shoe-in for the “Female Vocalist of the Year” nominations from both the CMA and ACM Awards seemingly overnight, and getting nominated for more CMA Awards in 2013 than anyone except for Taylor Swift who she equals with 6. Though Musgraves still needs to prove her muster as a country superstar by delivering a big single, she has already proven to be a fan and critic favorite, and has springboarded to the very top of the business despite her underdog status.
They may be signed to the Country Music Anti-Christ Scott Borchetta’s Big Machine Records (same as Taylor Swift, Rascal Flatts, etc.), but you won’t find a better, and at times, more outspoken artist and band than Raul Malo and the Mavericks. In 1995, The Mavericks won “Vocal Group of the Year” for both the CMA’s, ACM’s, and the Grammy’s, but their hard-to-define sound proved to be too much for mainstream country to handle on its journey south to pure pop. But The Mavericks remain solid members of the mainstream world, even working as the house band for the 2013 CMT Awards. Their latest album In Time is as good as any.
The vixen-esque career songwriter with eyes the size of Cajun tires has been slaying audiences for years with her solo material and her work with the Pistol Annies, and now that she’s unleashed her much-anticipated solo album Like A Rose through Columbia Nashville, Ashley symbolizes the one glimmer of what could be considered traditional country in mainstream channels. As expected, with music as authentic as hers, the industry has been timid to get behind her and deliver the radio plays and awards she deserves, but she still remains one of traditional country’s biggest mainstream champions.
Because Gary Allan has always resided just one tier shy of country music’s top names, it’s easy to be mislead just how much commercial success he’s seen over the years. Over his 17-year career with Decca and MCA Nashville, he’s been awarded two platinum records, two gold records, eleven Top Ten hits, and four #1′s. Yes, he’s had some singles that are clearly courting of mainstream radio, and he himself would tell you his sound is just as much, if not more rock than country. But Gary Allan is one of those guys that can still get attention from country radio without making you gag, while album cuts show a real sincerity to his music. He also has been outspoken about the state of country music recently (though he did back peddle somewhat afterwards).
Say what you will about one of the co-writers of “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” Jamey Johnson was able to take a very traditional sound and authentic country songs and make it to the very top of the charts and industry awards in a business that is usually unforgiving to this type of true style. His double album opus The Guitar Song sneaked its way all the way to #1 on the Billboard charts upon its debut, and his song “In Color” won Song of the Year accolades from both the CMA and ACM Awards in 2009, and was nominated for a Grammy. Though his original output has slowed as of late and he’s apparently not writing and frustrated at his contract situation, his 2012 Hank Cochran tribute still charted #3 on the Billboard Country Albums chart.
After Zac Brown recently made some inflammatory statements about Luke Bryan’s song “That’s My Kind of Night,” his own country career came under intense scrutiny. Brown has always been out front saying he believes he is more Southern rock than country, but appreciative of all the support the country industry has given him, which has been huge to the tune of being a perennial contender for Vocal Group awards at both the CMA and ACM’s. Songs like “Chicken Fried” and his numerous beach tunes leave him open to criticism, but it is still hard to not name Zac Brown as so much better than your average mainstream country music fare.
When discussions are broached about mainstream country artists that still have substance, Dierks’ name invariably comes up. Throughout his career, he’s strived to create a balance between courting radio and creating a music legacy that isn’t devoid of creative expression. With albums like Up On The Ridge, Dierks progressive and traditional fans glimmers of hope. But then he will turn right back around on you and put out the biggest cry for commercial attention, giving listeners a headache of where they’re supposed to be with him. In the end it’s best to resolve that Dierks will likely always be a mixed bag, but is worth appreciating when he does decide to do country music right.
For years the top tier of country music coverage was simply a cloistered and closed-minded exercise in recycling the same already-established names in puff pieces proselytizing the virtues of pop country and very little else. As independent music as a whole continues to gain market share from the mainstream, it’s becoming more and more pertinent for big news outlets to pay attention to the rising tide of independent music, and the renewed interest in legends of the genre. CMT created CMT Edge to cover Americana, bluegrass, legacy artists and other independent acts, and other outlets have stepped up their independent coverage in one capacity or another. But that one mainstream outlet that really gives equal footing to artists regardless if they have the big money of a major label behind them has remained elusive…at least in country music’s traditional stomping ground of the United States.
Once again the Europeans out class their cross Atlantic counterparts with the newly-launched Country Music Magazine from Team Rock—the same people who’ve brought the UK the long-running and widely-distributed Classic Rock Magazine. Despite the generic name, this magazine is anything but, with 132 extra wide (8 ½” x 12″) glossy full-color photo-showcasing pages, accompanied by a free, 15-track CD with music from the likes of Sturgill Simpson and Guy Clark.
Amongst its content is a full 60 pages of in-depth features on folks like Johnny Cash, Tony Joe White, Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson, steel guitar player Buddy Emmons, Kris Kristofferson, Guy Clark, LeAnn Rimes, Steve Martin, Wanda Jackson, and many more. There’s also a rundown of “69 Must-Have Classics of Modern Country” and smaller features on Fifth on the Floor, Austin Lucas, Jack Clement, and others. The last 30 pages of the mag are dedicated to dozens of album reviews and a buyers guide of releases and re-issues complete with ratings from a wide swath of the country music world. Even the few, unobtrusive ads in the mag are for cool country folks like Daniel Romano and Laura Cantrell. Both the current and archival photos for the respective artists are astounding in their full page context.
When I first heard about this magazine and saw the lineup of who they were planning to feature, I was interested to see how it would all play out once it went to print. It sounded almost too good to be true, but Country Music Magazine seems to be determined to do right by the country music name.
And to be fair, the mag doesn’t ignore bigger, mainstream artists. There’s album reviews for Florida-Georgia Line, Blake Shelton, and Brad Paisley because they’re part of the country music community too. But the reviews for these big names are right beside reviews for people like Bill Kirchen and Patty Griffin. And it can’t be stressed enough how much content is here. It’s a magazine you can’t put down, but seems to take forever to get through because past every page turn is something you want to read, and read again.
About the only base that maybe wasn’t thoroughly touched was the Texas/Red Dirt side of country, but from mainstream to Americana and independent country, they have it all covered. Another concern would be that they set the bar so high with this inaugural issue, it will be interesting to see if they can match it at quarterly intervals. Nonetheless, this is the country music magazine we’ve all be waiting for.
Two guns up!
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Country Music Magazine is edited by Ed Mitchell, with contributions by Grant Moon, Emma Wicks, and Max Bell. Comes shipped in an outer protective cover that includes the magazine and free CD. The magazine costs £7.99 in the UK, £9.99, which is roughly $15.00 US to have it shipped to the States.
Somewhat weird, certainly smart-assed, but seriously entertaining, The Defibulators from New York, New York have unleashed their latest album Debt’ll Get ‘Em, ripe for weird looks and rank misunderstanding, but filled with some really good times.
They say there’s a band for every moment in time, and though that may be a tall order to lump on The Defibulators’ shoulders exclusively, they seem to define this strange time in country roots better than most. In many ways they’re a hipster band themselves, being a country band from the Big Apple and blending sometimes hokey elements and campy attitude into what otherwise is authentic country music. At the same time they’re armed with a keen sense of self-awareness, not only of themselves, but of their time and surrounding, and are quick to harp on the silliness of every other Anthropology major running around with a banjo, and legions of roots musicians moving to the big cities to take part in Mumford mania.
There’s no doubt that in 20 years or so, roots revival bands in their vests and suspenders will be the laughing stock of popular culture just like hair metal bands are today, but the Defibulators ask why wait 20 years when you can make fun of them right now, and in some ways make fun of yourself by proxy? Being a country band from New York City is somewhat campy itself, so why not embrace your fate, own it, revel in it, and most importantly, not let it get in the way of making great music, or the music you want.
The line between where the sarcasm ends and the seriousness begins with The Defibulators is hard to define, and they appear to like it that way. But one thing for sure is the Defibulators are nothing to laugh at as players or songwriters. New York may be getting infiltrated by hayseed musicians from North Carolina, like the moral of the Debt’ll Get ‘Em song “Cackalacky” conveys (see video below), but it’s hard to make it in NYC no matter what style of music you play unless you have some serious chops. And The Defibulators have them, evidenced throughout this album, and specifically on the seriously fun instrumental “Rumble Strip.” Can’t say enough about the players of The Defibulators, and there’s a total of seven of them so you could get tongue tied trying to shower accolades on them all, but needless to say, Debt’ll Get’Em is worth the listen if only for the music.
Acoustic guitar, banjo player, and front man Bug Jennings writes the majority of the songs, and is responsible for wrapping the true message behind The Defibulators so tightly in so many veils, it keeps you on your toes at all times, wondering just what the hell is going on, and if they are laughing at you or with you, or if you’re just supposed to stop wondering and listen to the damn music. Songs like “Working Class,” “Get Yer Papers,” and “He-Haw In Heaven” all have moments where they feel like they’re totally a bit, but nonetheless convey the entertainment of a honest to goodness country song.
The Defibulators secret weapon is the breathtaking Erin Bru, who can squeeze the pain out of a song like few others. Though she’s only featured out front in a few songs, she threatens to steal the show every time, like in the sultry “Pay For That Money.” When a girl is added to a band just to stand there and be cute and maybe sing some harmonies and shake a tambourine, there is nothing worse. But in instances like Erin Bru and The Defibulators, it can help legitimize the entire thing.
One of my concerns about the Defibulators is where they exactly fit in this big, scarey music world. Their strength is that their music is hard to pigeon hole, but it also might be their weakness. Aside from drawing shallow similarities to Jonny Fritz, I’m not sure where they belong, or if enough people will get them. But I got Debt’ll Get Em, or maybe it got me, but either way I definitely found it worth the listen.
1 1/2 of 2 guns up — 4 of 5 stars
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